BOLIVIA has accused the United States of trying to “kidnap” its president, Evo Morales, after his plane was denied permission to fly over some European countries then inspected at Vienna airport on suspicion he was taking fugitive US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden to Latin America.
Mr Snowden was not on the plane and is still believed to be stranded in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport. The US has been trying to get its hands on him since he revealed details of its secret surveillance programmes last month.
Bolivia said the incident, in which the plane was denied permission to fly over France and Portugal before making an stop-over in Vienna late on Tuesday, was an act of aggression and a violation of international law.
The White House declined to comment.
The furore was the latest twist in a saga which has raised debate over the balance between privacy rights and national security. Revelations of US surveillance on European countries have also strained trans-Atlantic relations.
France yesterday said free-trade talks between the European Union and the US should be delayed by two weeks given tensions over media reports stemming from the Snowden case that Washington is spying on the 28-nation bloc.
The Bolivian plane was taking Mr Morales home from an energy conference in Moscow.
Austrian deputy chancellor Michael Spindelegger said Mr Morales personally denied that Mr Snowden was aboard his jet and agreed to a voluntary inspection.
“Based on this invitation from Bolivia a colleague boarded the plane, looked at everything and there was no one else on board,” Mr Spindelegger said.
Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sacha Llorenti Soliz, expressed outrage.
He said: “We’re talking about the president on an official trip after an official summit being kidnapped.
“We have no doubt that it was an order from the White House. By no means should a diplomatic plane with the president be diverted from its route and forced to land in another country.”
The ambassador said Bolivia’s anger was directed at the US and the countries that prevented the plane from flying over them.
“There is no problem with relations with Austria. On the contrary, we are grateful that we were able to land there,” he said.
Mr Llorenti said Bolivia, would complain to the United Nations.
Leaders of the South American bloc Unasur demanded an explanation for what they called “unfriendly and unjustifiable acts”.
Bolivia is among more than a dozen countries where Mr Snowden has sought asylum and Mr Morales has said he would consider granting the American refuge if requested.
The 30-year-old Mr Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency as a contractor in Hawaii, has been trying since 23 June to find a country that will offer him asylum from prosecution in the US on espionage charges.
But his options have narrowed since he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong with no valid travel documents after the United States revoked his passport.
Five countries have rejected granting Snowden asylum, seven have said they would consider a request if made on their soil, and eight said they had either not made a decision.